Interview: Dan O'Brien Talks THE HOUSE IN SCARSDALE, Premiering Tonight as Part of PTP/NYC's Virtual Season

THE HOUSE IN SCARSDALE: A MEMOIR FOR THE STAGE runs virtually October 8 - 11.

By: Oct. 08, 2020
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Interview: Dan O'Brien Talks THE HOUSE IN SCARSDALE, Premiering Tonight as Part of PTP/NYC's Virtual Season

Dan O'Brien is an acclaimed playwright and poet, whose accolades include a Guggenheim Fellowship in Drama & Performance Art, the inaugural Edward M. Kennedy Prize for Drama Inspired by American History, the Horton Foote Prize for Best New American Play, and more. His play, The House in Scarsdale: a Memoir for the Stage was the winner of the PEN Center USA Award for Drama, and is currently being presented in a virtual reading by PTP/NYC (Potomac Theatre Project) as part of their 34th repertory season of streaming plays.

Directed by Christian Parker, and starring O'Brien and Alex Draper, the piece dives into the raw, the personal and the emotional, delving into O'Brien's own story and the complexities of his splintered relationship with his family.

The play premieres tonight, Thursday October 8th at 7:30pm EDT on PTP/NYC's YouTube channel, and the stream will be available through Sunday evening.

We spoke with O'Brien about the creation of the play, performing the piece virtually and more.

Tell me a bit about your background as an actor and writer.

I acted in college and for a few years after, but I focused on writing after that. As a playwright and poet, of course, there are lots of opportunities to present one's own work, so in that sense I've continued to perform. Over the years I've written many fictional plays that were attempts to write about my painful upbringing. It took me quite a long time to be able to write about it as nakedly as I do here.

Give me a little bit of background on the creation of the The House in Scarsdale, if you will.

I wrote the play as a way to solve the mystery of why, at the age of thirty-two, my parents disowned me without any explanation. All I had were clues and theories. My parents had a long history of estranging themselves from other family members, so the play began as a series of interviews with these relatives-those I could track down and contact and who were willing to talk to me, that is. There was a lot of distrust to overcome, a lot distressing memories to unearth. Many of my relatives refused to reconnect with me, of course. But some did, and from them I learned a lot about the hidden realities of my childhood. Over time, one hypothetical reason for my family's dysfunction became increasingly more compelling to me: What if my father's brother is my true father? And this question became the driving force of the play.

I wrote a first draft in Center Theatre Group's L.A. Writers' Workshop. It premiered at Boston Court Pasadena in 2017, directed by Michael Michetti and performed by Tim Cummings and Brian Henderson, and it went on to win a PEN American Award for Drama. This was an excellent production, in my opinion. I didn't perform in it myself, as I had just come through nine months of cancer treatment and wasn't exactly feeling up to the task. But since then I've been looking for the opportunity to act in the play myself.

I've known Alex Draper forever, and I've worked with him many times on many of my plays. We share a working vocabulary and aesthetic, and I've always admired his sense of craft and his passion for the art. He has the harder job here: I play myself throughout the play but Alex portrays, in rapid succession, everybody else-every relative I interviewed, a private investigator, not one but two psychics, some random passengers on New Jersey Transit (the list goes on). He's called upon to be something of a shapeshifter here-a challenge for any actor, but I knew Alex could do it. And he wanted to do it, he wanted the challenge. I've always admired Alex, and PTP/NYC generally, for striving to create difficult-and thereby rewarding-theatre.

What was it like putting together The House in Scarsdale specifically to be presented virtually?

As it's just a reading, we didn't want to "produce" it much. The play has a fluid sense of time and place, so we're using subtitles here and there to help the audience follow along. But otherwise we're simply telling the story as clearly as we can, and hoping viewers will imagine the inventive staging and design that the script calls for. Some transitional scenes are almost expressionistic, and might be a bit hard to follow onscreen, but most of the play consists of face-to-face conversations, phone calls and emails, so the back-and-forth Zoomness of it all, I think, works pretty well here. Many times the two actors play two sides of "Dan," so I'm literally talking to myself-sometimes arguing with myself-albeit virtually. Even onstage, the overall effect of this play for an audience should be one of intimacy-you're being huddled into a very private story. In that regard, and compared to many plays I've written, this play seems fairly well-suited for a pandemic presentation.

What has been your favorite part about the process of presenting this show?

It's rewarding to be able to be myself and tell my own story here. This play is the second in a trilogy and follows my play The Body of an American, in which I was also a main character. That play was rewarding in a different way-to see and help actors interpret the role. But for a variety of reasons I felt ready and able to perform as myself.

Other than that, I mostly just enjoyed working again with Alex Draper, and our director Christian Parker, and the PTP/NYC company. When I was an undergraduate at Middlebury College I was part of a PTP season in Olney, MD, and while there I had a reading of my first full-length play. Alex Draper read the lead in that play. And Christian and I overlapped at Middlebury-we were in a student production of Ionesco's The Bald Soprano together. Cheryl Faraone and Richard Romagnoli, founders of PTP/NYC (along with Jim Petosa), were my professors at Middlebury. So this virtual production is a homecoming of sorts for me, and a reunion for all of us: a reassuring feeling in tumultuous times.

What do you hope the audience takes away from The House in Scarsdale?

I hope audiences see something of their own families in mine. I hope they feel a vicarious thrill as I ask my family the uncomfortable questions, in pursuit of a solution to the mystery of where I come from and who I am. I hope they laugh and feel moved by the story. And I hope they recognize in themselves the desire, the need, that we all have to make sense of the traumas that interrupt and reinvent our lives. I hope the audience is left thinking about how our lives are our most important stories, whether they are true stories or not.

Tune in to watch The House in Scarsdale: A Memoir for the Stage on Potomac Theatre Project YouTube page HERE!